Georgia has a problem. Secretary of State Brian Kemp is running for governor but won’t recuse himself from election oversight — a move akin to serving as a “judge in his … own case.” The Associated Press reported last week that his office has 53,000 voter registration applications on hold. Almost 70 percent are from black applicants, who are, statistically speaking, likely backers of his opponent, Stacey Abrams.
Yet when confronted with these overwhelming conflicts of interest, Kemp insists that nothing sketchy is going on; in fact, he assures us, the reality is the opposite. “Kemp is fighting to protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that only legal citizens cast a ballot,” Ryan Mahoney, Kemp’s campaign spokesperson, told the AP.
Kemp’s crusade for “the integrity of our elections” is a farce. Noncitizen voting is almost nonexistent. Of the 23.5 million votes cast in 42 jurisdictions in 2016 — including 8 of the 10 with the highest concentration of noncitizens nationally — only 30 were flagged for fraud investigation or prosecution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s 0.0001 percent.
Meanwhile, Kemp’s office has tens of thousands of applications on hold, often for quibbling technical inconsistencies like slight mismatches with information on file with the state’s Department of Driver Services. A missing accent or dropped hyphen in a last name is enough to trigger a hold under Georgia’s “exact match” policy. An earlier version of the law — which used to reject applicants outright for such mismatches — was scrapped in 2017 when the state settled a lawsuit alleging the measure was racist.
(Voters with applications on hold can still cast ballots in person in November if they present the proper ID; they have 26 months to resolve any discrepancies before their application is officially rejected.)
This yawning chasm between actual election unfairness and Kemp’s fantasy version is a hallmark of the secretary’s tenure. In reality, he has made voting in Georgia harder in ways that disproportionately impact black people and poor people — and openly defied calls to fix the state’s faulty and vulnerable electronic voting systems. Election integrity, in Kemp’s estimation, seems to mean the control of elections by him.
It wasn’t always this easy to thwart large swaths of Georgia’s electorate. For decades, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required federal “preclearance” before several states — including Georgia and six others in the South with histories of racist disenfranchisement — changed their voting laws. The Supreme Court famously gutted this provision in 2013, a decision that opened the floodgates for a wave of suppressive legislation. The racist impact of missing oversight modernized the kind of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement the original V.R.A. was designed to rein in.
Fueled by Republican efforts at the state level, voter ID laws that had previously faced legal challenges were now permitted to take hold. Aggressive voter roll purges rendered millions ineligible to cast ballots. According to another Brennan Center report, states that formerly required preclearance were the most zealous in pursuing such measures. The authors estimated that 2 million fewer voters would have been rendered ineligible between 2012 and 2016 had these states purged them at the same lower rate as states that did not previously require federal sanction.
Georgia was no exception. Seemingly operating from the premise that voting should be really hard — and even harder if your life is already hard — Kemp’s office has played a noticeably hands-off role watching local election boards shut down precincts en masse. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis, county officials have closed 214 across the state since 2012 — mostly in poor and rural areas where voting access is already a challenge.
Although Kemp did not order these closures himself, the counties that oversaw them were guided by a document his office provided outlining how and why to shutter precincts. Most recently, Kemp made headlines when a consultant he recommended — Mike Malone — sought to close seven of nine polling places in majority-black Randolph County in August.
But barriers to voting in Georgia have been more imposing since Kemp took a more active role in erecting them. His office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012, including 670,000 in 2017 alone. Reasons include the aforementioned “exact match” policy, a less draconian version of which was reinstated after the original got scrapped. When questioned by the AP about the law’s racial asymmetry, Kemp blamed his opponent, accusing the New Georgia Project — a voter registration organization that Abrams founded in 2013 — of failing to “adequately train canvassers to ensure legible, complete forms.”
Curiously, Kemp’s precise and exacting nature doesn’t seem to prevent him from scapegoating others for his own conduct. He has been far more cavalier — and more hostile toward his critics — when actual voting integrity issues have arisen on his watch. When the ACLU called on Kemp in October 2016 to extend the voter registration deadline in counties that had evacuation orders in place due to Hurricane Matthew, the secretary refused, instead taking to Twitter to issue paranoid proclamations.
“The ACLU wants to create chaos in our local elections offices,” Kemp tweeted. “Stand with me [and] protect Georgia’s elections.”
Perhaps the most damning manifestation of Kemp’s dismissiveness toward election integrity is his refusal to fix Georgia’s electronic voting system. Ballots are cast across the state using touchscreen computers with no paper trail or verifiable record to ensure their accuracy. Georgia is one of only five U.S. states to use such a system, and the potential problems are obvious. During early voting for the 2016 election, a machine in Bryan County had to be removed from circulation when several people reported it had automatically switched their vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.
In August 2016, Kemp spoke out against federal attempts to reclassify the American election system as “critical infrastructure” — a designation that would have enabled the Department of Homeland Security to offer cybersecurity support. Kemp argued the move would allow the government to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.” (Kemp has since accepted help from the D.H.S.)
That same month, a cybersecurity researcher named Logan Lamb started looking for vulnerabilities at a facility at Kennesaw State University, which was under contract with the state to test and program all of its voting machines. That so much of Georgia’s election infrastructure was housed in a single location concerned Lamb. His findings were even more alarming. They included 15 gigabytes of unsecured files, including passwords to an election day central server, databases used to verify people’s voting eligibility, and a security hole through which information about all of the state’s 6.7 million registered voters could be downloaded.
“The files had been publicly exposed for so long that they were cached on Google,” The New Yorker reported.
From a security standpoint, Georgia’s system was a joke. But by February 2017, six months after Lamb alerted state officials to its vulnerabilities, the same issues were still present. Lamb’s findings were made public the next month. If Kemp hadn’t been aware of them before, he certainly knew by then. The FBI spent a few short weeks investigating and declared no unauthorized persons had accessed the system. Soon after, however, computer security researchers at universities including Yale, MIT, and Stanford wrote Kemp a letter saying the investigation had been too short to truly determine its safety.
“Time and again cyber breaches are found to have been far more extensive than initially reported,” they wrote. They also implored Kemp to replace the state’s electronic voting system with paper ballots.
Predictably, Kemp made no such effort. In response to his reticence, Georgia voters filed a lawsuit that July aiming to force the secretary to abandon the electronic voting system for good. On July 7, four days later, the vulnerable data server Logan Lamb had exposed — described by the AP as “crucial to [the] lawsuit” — was mysteriously wiped clean. A spokeswoman for Kemp’s office told reporters, “we did not have anything to do with this decision.” Kemp ultimately posted a request this summer for companies to submit proposals for a new statewide voting system — which, if commissioned, would not be in place until 2020, long after Kemp’s tenure as secretary of state is over.
The record is hard to dispute. There are very real threats to election integrity in Georgia, but Kemp tends to greet them with denial, indignation, and, ultimately, inaction. When confronted with proof of vulnerable electronic voting systems and the racist impact of his policies, he points to the almost nonexistent canard of noncitizen voter fraud to justify his conduct. He accuses the federal government and the ACLU of conspiring to subvert his power when they identify problems with his voting apparatus. He is at the vanguard of resurgent voter suppression tactics across the South. He has tried to galvanize his base by falsely accusing his opponent of wanting “illegals to vote.” He has all but guaranteed the November election will be hilariously slanted in his favor.
Through it all, Kemp’s sham crusade to clean up Georgia’s elections has merely served as a cover for accelerated disenfranchisement. It is true that Georgia needs help making its voting process fairer and more accessible. Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest threat to the integrity of its elections is sitting in the secretary of state’s office — and may soon be in the governor’s mansion.